Spiritual seekers go to the Rime Buddhist Center for enlightenment. On the way, some of them have discovered this life's dark side.

Trouble in Shangri-La 

Spiritual seekers go to the Rime Buddhist Center for enlightenment. On the way, some of them have discovered this life's dark side.

The lama is a white guy. With a mostly shaved head and translucent blue eyes, he looks imperturbable on a gold cushion in front of a shrine that holds a fat, gold Buddha, flickering candles and offerings of flowers and incense.

He wears a sleeveless red silk vest over maroon robes.

Twenty-five students sit around him, attentive.

They have come from all over the metro area to the Rime Buddhist Center and Monastery on Kansas City's West Side, seeking wisdom from Lama Chuck Stanford, who sometimes goes by his Tibetan name, Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje.

In Stanford's 12-week course, the Basics of Buddhism, students start by meditating on a raisin. ("First, we bring attention to seeing the raisin, observing it carefully, as if we had never seen one before. We are also aware of any thoughts we might be having about raisins, or food in general," the exercise in the textbook instructs.)

Now, midway through the class, they know all about the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and concepts such as the Four Noble Truths:

One, life always involves suffering.

Two, the cause of suffering is desire.

Three, getting rid of craving can end suffering.

Four, craving can be eliminated by following the Buddha's Eightfold Path. (The Eightfold Path is about doing everything "right" -- right thinking, right speech, right conduct.)

The students talk about their efforts to practice Buddhist principles. One twentysomething guy talks about his frustrations trying to merge into traffic on Southwest Boulevard.

"Well," Stanford replies with a smile, "I've often thought that if the Buddha had been alive today instead of 2,500 years ago, we would have had the Ninefold Path instead of the Eightfold Path." He pauses, his timing comedic. "And the ninth fold would have been right driving."

The students laugh.

Later, a longtime member of Stanford's congregation, Teri Brody, will confirm one of Stanford's special talents. "He's got that showbiz personality," she tells the Pitch.

Before he was executive director and spiritual leader of the Rime Center, Stanford supplemented his income doing card tricks and pulling quarters out of kids' ears. Despite his talent for magic tricks, though, Stanford hasn't been able to make tensions at the Rime Center disappear.

Last spring, several board members resigned, unhappy with the way Stanford was running the center and doubtful of his qualifications as a lama. Restiveness at the center continued through the fall.

The malcontents couldn't help but take it personally when they picked up The Kansas City Star in January and saw that Stanford had written his monthly column about discord within congregations.

"If someone finds they simply cannot get along with the community or does not have faith and confidence in the pastor, rabbi or lama, they have an obligation to leave rather than to cause disharmony in the congregation," he wrote on January 17. "The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, placed an incredibly high value on a congregation getting along. He compared causing disharmony in a congregation to killing one's parents."

A few years earlier, it would have been hard to imagine Stanford as a spiritual leader. During the 1980s and '90s, he ran a party-planning company in Merriam called Stanford Productions, supplying wacky carnival games -- Sumo Wrestling, the Bungee Run, Human Bowling -- for birthday celebrations and company picnics. He moonlighted as a magician -- "Mr. Fabulous" -- and performed as a stand-up comedian.

But even though he was a master of sudden transformations, Stanford had nothing on the guru Kusum Lingpa. According to his own Web site, Kusum Lingpa has supernatural powers that help him find spiritual messages that were supposedly hidden in the earth, water and sky more than 1,000 years ago by the enlightened Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet.

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